Often wrongly confused with a prostitute, the geisha is defined by her practice of traditional Japanese arts. She sells her talents to keep company and entertain wealthy businessmen on special occasions such as feasts or prestigious parties. Dance, music and discussion, geishas collect artistic and social qualities. They are distinguished by their refinement, general culture and beauty. Discover the mysterious and sensual universe of the geisha as well as their role in the preservation of age-old traditions.
GEISHA WORD SIGNIFICATION
The name "geisha" is composed of two characters that can be translated as "art" and "person". Literally, the word means "Person who practices the arts". The geisha is therefore first and foremost a japanese artist.
She has the essential skills to entertain her clients while valuing ancestral traditions. The geisha, because of her elegance and strength, is part of the world of flowers and willows (karyūkai).
EVOLUTION AND ORIGIN OF GEISHA'S PROFESSION
The concept of the artistic muse first appeared in 794 during the reign of Emperor Kamu, who invited dancers to entertain samurai and warriors. It was this association of art and entertainment that later gave birth to the geishas we know today.
1. Geisha origin
Maiko and geko with traditional Japanese kimono
The trend developed during the Edo period in the ancient capital of Japan. Little by little, the dancers learned other talents such as singing, poetry, classical music and the art of conversation. They were often invited to banquets (ozashiki) as lady companions to serve sake and entertain the noble clientele.
Did you know that the first official geisha were men? Many women called onna geisha then joined the trade until they became the majority. It wasn't until 1800 that the profession became exclusively female.
2. Geisha profession
A geisha walking alone in the street
Over the years, the profession of geisha was officially recognized and a very strict code of conduct followed. The growth of the profession is associated with the emergence of tea houses.
While there were hundreds of thousands during the Edo period and until the Second World War, geishas are becoming increasingly rare. There were only 15,000 in the 19th century and there are barely 200 today, mainly in the Gion district.
During the war the government closed the "flower cities" to recruit geishas in the factory. In addition, young girls are now required to complete secondary school before entering the profession.
Although the number of professional women has fallen sharply, there seems to be a revival of activity thanks to the media. Thus, the number of apprentice geishas (maiko) is on the rise.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES A GEISHA DO?
The geisha, also called geiko, is a hostess who masters the traditional Japanese arts. Dedicated to her country, she alone embodies Japanese folklore and culture with refinement and elegance. With a well-kept appearance, she presents a perfect aesthetic, with a worked make-up, an impeccable bun, a Japanese silk kimono and a fan that she handles brilliantly.
1. Geisha tea ceremony
These hostesses have all the qualities required to make you have a great time by marveling at the same time your eyes and your mind. They mainly work in tea houses (ochaya) and restaurants to host banquets and entertain wealthy customers.
Integrated in the circles of influential men and guardians of Japanese customs, they play an important role in society. Moreover, this profession is highly respected in the Land of the Rising Sun where the company of a geisha remains a great privilege.
2. Geisha dance
The geisha masters dance, singing and music. She plays the shamisen (stringed instrument) and the taiko (drum). The tea ceremony, games, poetry, calligraphy and the art of conversation have no secrets for her. In addition, her general culture is particularly rich. Until the 20th century, the geisha was considered a fashion ambassador.
The Miyako Odori festival is a great place to see geishas dancing. This Japanese festival takes place in the first 3 weeks of April in Kyoto.
GEISHA CODE OF CONDUCT
There are many rules governing the life of a geisha. Their duty of refinement obliges them to control all their gestures in order to respect this very strict code. Thus, young women are not free to go where they want or to do what they want because they are obliged to follow very precise criteria respecting traditions.
1. Geisha dress code
Geisha Kyoto with a wonderful traditional Japanese dress
Every detail of the outfit reveals the experience and rank of the geisha. It is important to know that some costumes weigh more than 20kg! The maiko wear a colorful traditional kimono with a wide belt (obi) that is very showy, while the geiko wear a more discreet outfit with more sober patterns. The sandals, or geta, have more or less thick wooden soles. The latter indicates the geisha's rank, as does the colour of the straps.
2. Geisha hair
They wear long black hair pulled up in a traditional bun held by pins and adorned with floral decorations. Nowadays, most geishas use a wig to avoid damaging their hair and to obtain a perfect result without too much effort. The hairstyles of experienced geishas are less elaborate than those of the maiko.
3. Why is a geishas face white?
Geisha make up with red lips
The geisha and especially the maiko have a very recognizable make-up. The complexion is covered in white rice powder to recall Japanese masks. The mouth is partly tinged red. The eyes are underlined in black with touches of red at the corner of the eyelids and on the eyebrows. Some geishas colour their teeth black (a sign of beauty in Japan in the past). We agree that tastes are subjective 😅
More experienced geisha`s make-up is more discreet to reveal their natural beauty and unlike the maiko who leaves her upper lip white, it is only the lower lip that is coloured, a sign of an accomplished geisha.
4. What is a geisha house called?
A show in the geisha house
In general, geishas live in the okiya (置屋) of the flower cities (hanamachi) in Kyoto. These houses consist of a mother (okasan) and several geishas who live under the same roof, sometimes with staff to help with cooking or cleaning. The okasan educates and takes young girls under its wing during their training.
5. A typical day of a geisha
During the course of the day, the geisha develops her artistic and cultural skills in order to always be at the top. They also spend many hours taking care of her appearance. At the end of the afternoon, they discreetly go to the tea houses, using the small streets to welcome wealthy businessmen.
While many Japanese girls dream of becoming a geisha, the profession requires at least 5 years of training and a very strict apprenticeship.
In the past, little girls joined the houses of the geisha (okiya) from the age of 6. Fortunately, this era is now over. You must be at least 15 years old and have completed secondary school to become a geisha.
For 5 years, the geisha (maiko) students learn all the codes of conduct associated with the profession. They study the rules of etiquette, the art of dressing, make-up, how to stand, move and sit elegantly. Doesn't that remind you a little of Miss France?
They also learn traditional arts such as dancing, singing, tea service, flower arranging, or literature. At the end of their training, geisha excel in all artistic fields.
The maiko accompanies the geiko in their daily life and at their appointments. They maintain a strong bond with their elders and learn to make a place for themselves in the very closed community of the bourgeoisie.
ARE THERE ANY REAL GEISHAS LEFT?
Beautiful Japanese geisha with black hair
Geisha and maiko are mainly found in Kyoto and more specifically in hanamachi such as Gion, Pontochō, Kamishichiken and Miyagawachō.
On your next trip to Japan, would you like to meet a Geisha to immerse yourself in Japanese folklore and break through the Japanese myth? First of all, you should know that these ladies have become very rare, however you can still see some of them, especially in the district of Gion where they live.
If you can afford it, I advise you to book the services of a geisha at a tea house, restaurant or hotel. Sometimes it is necessary to have good contacts to do this as most clients are chosen by recommendation.
Otherwise, you can sometimes come across them while walking around Gion in the evening when the geisha is going to their place of activity or finishing their work.
It is also possible to see a geisha show during public or tourist performances. If the old capital is not on your way, you can also see them in the hanamachi from Tokyo to Asakusa, Shimbashi or Kagurazaka district for example.
IS A GEISHA A CONCUBINE?
Geisha girl, kimura kami
Geishas are reduced to prostitution, particularly in the minds of Westerners, this practice has been officially excluded from the profession since the 18th century.
The confusion stems from several factors. First of all, geishas and prostitutes shared the same neighbourhood. That is, the kagai, or streets dedicated to pleasure. Like courtesans, they frequented the same tea houses, serving a wealthy clientele.
Although originally excluded from the trade, sexual favours were possible. In the Edo period, it was common practice to grant such favours or to sell the geisha's virginity at a high price.
On the other hand, some high-ranking prostitutes had a way of dressing and applying make-up similar to the geisha.
Finally, the media contributed to the dissemination of received ideas through literature and cinematographic works such as Memoirs of a Geisha.
Prostitution is not a part of the duties of today's geisha
HOW MUCH DOES A GEISHA COST?
You should know that the rate is very high. Count at least 2000 to 8000 yens for a show and three times more for a private performance. Also, you will receive the bill shortly after the evening. Don't forget that it is a great privilege and that this lady of company will make you spend a magic moment that you will remember for a long time.
Here is a report to discover a little more about the mysterious and refined world of geisha in Japan.
Now you know all about geishas and their mysteries. True artists, these beautiful and talented women continue to make Japanese people and tourists dream. You never know, maybe you will have the chance to meet one of them on your next trip to Japan?
And if you want to have your own geisha style, please have a look to our japanese geisha costumes !